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Monday, April 10, 2017

Review: Personal Shopper (2017)

* * * 1/2

Director: Olivier Assayas
Starring: Kristen Stewart

It's far too early in the year to say whether Personal Shopper will end up on my list of the year's best, but I feel like I can confidently say that it's going to be one of the films I feel compelled to revisit later in the year, possibly more than once. It's a film that engrosses and fascinates and maybe frustrates just a little bit thanks to writer/director Olivier Assayas' refusal to play by movie rules as we know them and thanks to the questions which linger afterwards like a spirit determined to make its presence known. The film re-teams Assayas with Kristen Stewart after Clouds of Sils Maria and if anything it's even more enigmatic than that film and makes even better use of Stewart's skill set as a performer, leveraging that tranquility that sometimes plays like flatness by shaking it up so that even something as simple as the little blue bubble of a text message on a phone screen takes on a world of meaning and tension just because of how close it pushes her to the edge. Personal Shopper is the definition of a film that does a lot with a little.

The story consists of two narrative threads that gradually become intertwined before dividing away from each other again. The thread that gives the film its title centers on the employment of the main character, Maureen (Stewart), as a personal shopper for Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten), whose own occupation isn't explicitly stated but who appears to be a model. Maureen hates this job, describing it to her boyfriend, who is currently working in Oman, as a burden which leaves her with no time for the things that she wants to do, and she can offer no defense of the work when Kyra's boyfriend (Lars Eidinger) dismisses it as "stupid." It's made worse by the fact that she hates Kyra, who is as difficult as she is wealthy, but at least Maureen's interaction with her is kept to a minimum: they are ships constantly passing in the night, their communication almost entirely limited to messages left for each other.

The other thread, and the one which opens the film, begins with Maureen going to the empty home once owned by her twin brother, Lewis, who has died of a congenital heart defect that also afflicts Maureen. Like Lewis, Maureen possesses the abilities of a medium and is hoping to communicate in some way with Lewis, the two of them having promised each other that whoever died first would give the other a sign. She gets more than she bargained for in her nights spent in the house and afterwards begins receiving text messages from an unknown person, whom she comes to believe may be Lewis. The messages are strange, sometimes threatening in their tone, and push her out of her comfort zone, eliciting confessions from her and encouraging her to give in to bad impulses.

Personal Shopper is the kind of film that leaves you with more questions than answers, but it's so expertly done that that's what makes it so captivating. The main questions that you're left with are all about Maureen and what's going on with her: is she actually making contact with spirits, or are these encounters figments of her imagination? It seems that it can't just be her imagination because there's evidence left behind that other characters can see, but the final line she speaks in the film seems to re-open the question. Is Maureen possessed? It seems that way sometimes, as she wonders at her own behavior and figuratively slips into someone else's identity (Kyra's) by putting on her clothes, which so starkly contrast her own personal style of dress, and then sleeping in her bed. But is she actually possessed by another spirit, or is her increasingly nebulous sense of self just a manifestation of her grief over losing Lewis and her uncertainty about who she is now that the person with whom she literally began life is gone?

The ambiguous way that the film depicts Maureen, coupled with some genuinely unnerving sequences that plunge the film into the realm of horror, make a large contribution to the unsettled feeling that the film leaves you with, but Assayas accentuates that feeling with the way that he plays around with genre. As I said, at times the film seems like a horror movie, and there is also a point at which it begins to reveal itself as a thriller but then, just as the pieces of the mystery fit themselves together and the picture begins to reveal itself, then film swiftly pivots, rejecting anything resembling a traditional genre narrative by treating the development almost like an afterthought. What would be the climax of most movies almost seems incidental here, something paused over fleetingly, used to bring clarity to certain things about the plot (though not without muddying the waters a little bit more at the same time), and then left behind as the film returns to its character-based interests.

In a sense, Personal Shopper could be described as a "playful" movie, in that Assayas is constantly doing a bit of sleight of hand, making you think that you're headed in one direction and then suddenly revealing that you've turned into another. The film gets away with being that slippery both because Assayas is so confident in what he's doing, putting in touches that in lesser films might seem cheesy but which here just add to how unnerving everything is, and hinting at what's beneath the surface rather than directly explaining it; and because Stewart is so solid in the leading role, an impressive feat not only because the narrative refuses to be pinned down, but because she spends so much time in the film interacting with nothing. For every scene she shares with another actor, there's a scene where her partner is a spectral vision or a series of text messages, and Stewart completely sells those scenes, imbuing them with curiosity and longing and terror. It's a great performance in an absolutely beguiling film.

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